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Terre & Maggie Roche, 'Moonruns'

Precocity has become the norm in the TikTok-teened, Disney-fied pop world. But to my ears, none of the self-possessed wiz kids making bank today approach the wisdom and unfettered wit Maggie Roche possessed when she was 17. Roche, who died at 65 in 2017, was the anchor voice and primary songwriter in the scandalously undersung sister trio The Roches, whose catalog remains one of music's most inventive and enriching. Earlier on, she and sister Terre had a high-school duo who toured the U.S. and made an album, Seductive Reasoning, with the help of Paul Simon. Now Terre tells that story in a keepsake-like book and accompanying anthology of recordings compiled from early live bootlegs, studio outtakes and tracks from a tour the two sisters did in 2000.

As she absorbed the influences of master music crafters like Simon and Ry Cooder, Maggie began honing her unique gift for infusing wordplay-heavy magical-realist narratives with shocks of insight, particularly about how family and gender roles shape the lives of even the freest thinkers. She found in her sister Terre (who only occasionally wrote at this point) a mirror and a ballast: Terre's high, elastic voice could do things Maggie's contralto could not, and their intimacy made her interpretations of Maggie's versified thoughts highly intuitive. In a way, bending notes and tracing rhythms, Terre is always an author, too.

The Roches' blend of distinctly slanted harmonies, vaudevillian humor and poignancy is all there in "Moonruns," a Seductive Reasoning outtake that's hardly long enough to be a saga, yet cultivates all those seeds. Terre sings lead; Maggie's words tell the tale. Maggie remembers how, as a girl — already aware of "a world of difference" splitting her off from the boys she admired — she longed to hit a homer with Gary, a dreamy fourth grader on a local baseball team. The song paints the scene in saturated color, of Maggie peering through the dugout fence and watching the balls fly, seeing them as "moonruns," an allusion to the astronauts who also were all the rage then, and all men. "I was a third-grade fan," she puns, "but that was in the days before I was cool." So began a lifetime of pondering how and why some women can become cool and others never will; of thinking about freedom and equality, life's promise and love's cost.

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Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.